Scientists discovered the ancient human skeleton known as the “Spirit Cave Mummy” back in 1940, hidden in a small rocky cave in the Great Basin Desert in northwest Nevada. But it wouldn’t be until the 1990s that radiocarbon dating techniques revealed the skeleton was some 10,600 years old, making it the oldest natural mummy ever found.
After a long legal battle, advanced DNA sequencing revealed the Spirit Cave Mummy is related to a modern Native American tribe, which has long claimed the cave as part of its ancestral homeland. The mummy has now been definitively linked to the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe of Nevada.
The striking discovery came as part of a groundbreaking genetic study, published in Science magazine, which analyzed several controversial ancient remains found from Alaska to Patagonia. Its findings are enabling scientists to track the movements of early human groups as they spread quickly across the Americas during the Ice Age.
The new study also challenges the longstanding theory that a different group, known as Paleoamericans, may have populated North America before Native Americans did. As part of the new study, the researchers sequenced the DNA of a group of 10,400-year-old human remains found at Lagoa Santa, Brazil in the 19th century. Earlier studies based on cranial morphology—or examination of the skulls’ shape—had led to the theory that the Lagoa Santa skeletons could not be Native American because their skull shapes were different.
“Our study proves that Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa were actually genetically closer to contemporary Native Americans than to any other ancient or contemporary group sequenced to date,” study leader Eske Willeslev of University of Cambridge and the University of Copenhagen, said in a press release.
"Looking at the bumps and shapes of a head does not help you understand the true genetic ancestry of a population,” Willeslev added. “We have proved that you can have people who look very different but are closely related."
In addition to the Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa remains, the study also analyzed DNA from the Lovelock skeletons (also from Nevada), an Inca mummy and the 9,000-year-old milk tooth of a young girl found in Trail Creek Cave in Alaska.
The legal battle over the fate of the Spirit Cave Mummy goes back to 2000, when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management decided against repatriating the remains. The Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe sued the government for violating the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and a district court judge urged the BLM to reconsider. The case dragged on until 2015, when the tribe allowed Willerslev and his team to conduct genome sequencing on DNA extracted from the mummy’s skull.
After the DNA analysis proved the mummy was in fact related to present-day Native Americans, the skeleton was returned to the tribe in 2016. Reburied in a private ceremony in 2018, the Spirit Cave Mummy is now finally at rest among his modern-day descendants.